Monday, May 24, 2010

Taiwan Day 2: The Wedding

Well, after waking up bright and early (around 2 am), I watched a movie on the portable DVD player and waited for the sun to come up. Suprisingly it did at around 5AM. I was a little confused, until I realized that there is no Daylight Savings Time in Taiwan. That is purely a US energy saving scheme that failed to work once air conditioning became widespread (the energy savings on not having lights on for the extra hour is far outweighed by the energy consumed to keep the house cool during the hour that people are awake and it is roasting outside - but I digress, that is a blog for another day about 18th century ideas that were never updated for technology, sort of like mailing out census forms in 2010!).

My wife was awake about this time so we had plenty of time to shower and get cleaned up in time for breakfast. Now, the day before we had had breakfast at a little fast food place in the train station. At the hotel, the breakfast buffet was complimentary. In every hotel I have ever stayed out in America, England, and India that had a complimentary breakfast, the breakfast was mediocre in the States, odd in India, and a decent sized platter in England. But still nothing that I would write home to Mom about (although blood pudding in England is something to taste at least once, no more than once, but at least once).

The breakfast buffet was on the 41st floor so we still had a great view of the ocean and the shipping docks. And the buffet was probably enough to rival most casinos in Las Vegas (never been there but going next year so I can make a true comparison). It was a very interesting blend of western and asian dishes. Pancakes beside Kimchee. Cold cereal and congee. Even a garden salad if that was your fancy for breakfast. There was ham, sausage, bacon, eggs in 20 different varieties, and omelets. Along with this was noodles, chow mein, seaweed, and rice. A couple of soups. Some lunchmeat, cheese, and crackers. Milk, soymilk, orange juice, apple juice, coffee, tea, even hot chocolate. And the bread table was well represented by countries of the world: baguettes, irish soda bread, bread pudding, croissants, sour dough, italian rolls, plus plain white and wheat bread. And Fresh fruit.

This buffet was so big (and all you can eat) that you could stay there for a month and probably not have sampled everything. I and my wife had a good mix of western and asian foods. The one thing we didn't try was the oatmeal, it was way too runny. If we had have known what was ahead of us for the day, we probably would have skipped breakfast. As it was, we both pigged out.

My friend and her maid of honor picked my wife and I up at 8am to take us to her house for parts of the wedding tradition. There was no ceremony like we would envision in the US. Getting married was a matter of signing the correct legal papers and then doing whatever traditions you wanted. My friend's family was from China (coming over with the Nationalists in the late 40's) while her husband's family was Taiwanese (having immigrated from southern China a hundred or so years before). So in traveling to her house she told us all about the different traditions that we would see.

First, before the wedding the wedding pictures were taken. My friend had 5 or 6 dresses for her pictures. Wedding pictures in Chinese culture are a major affair that have the goal of making the bride look like a supermodel. And they do. In fact, I have never seen Chinese wedding pictures (even from poor people) that didn't look like supermodels. In one case, my wife came up to me and saw some pictures on the computer from one of my friends from facebook. She probably initially thought that I was surfing the Glamour or Style or Cosmo website until I explained it to her.

My friend was bejeweled by her mother and aunt to make it look like the family had lots of money. Then my friend asked an important question of my wife. "How do you go to the bathroom in your wedding gown?" She explained that you have others lift up the dress and look away to do your business. My friend decided to fore go the bathroom and just hold it until the afternoon. Since she didn't get to eat much that was probably fine.

The groom arrived a little later in a caravan of expensive cars (not necessarily owned by the groom or his family but in most cases borrowed from whoever has them), to make it look like his family had lots of money. Firecrackers were ignited as the groom exited the car. He started by touching a couple of oranges for good luck. Then coming into the home he had to go to the backroom to retrieve his "shy" bride. In the front room the bride's father and mother were seated and the rest of the family stood around while the groom's family was served a soup by the bride's family (soup plays a role in everything in China, while teaching one Chinese family about Thanksgiving in Canada, they asked what kind of soup we had with our turkey and stuffing - we don't - they made some anyway and that is the only Thanksgiving that I have had soup at).

After eating the soup, the bride and groom bowed three times before the bride's mother and father to thank them for raising her. And then the bride and groom exited the house to go to their new home together. The bride had an aunt holding a shade over the bride so that she wouldn't get any sun on her. In the west, we strive to get that golden brown for special occasions, in Taiwan (and China) they strive to get white (they even have whitening cream from Nutragena - no I am not making that up, my friend gave us a packet of it). After leaving the house, the bride drops a fan which is picked up by the bride's family to give them something to remember their daughter.

The entourage then rides to the bride and groom's new home. We got to ride in the Lexus SUV about 4 back from the lead car. All along the way, the lead car would periodically drop strings of firecrackers out the window, having them go off in the street. And this was on the busy streets. There were a couple of motorscooter riders that got a shock when the firecrackers started popping directly in front (or underneath) them. I kind of wish we did more of this in the US. It might help keep some driver's on their toes (and off their cell phones) if at any moment a string of blackcats could land on your hood and start popping off).

One of the traditions is that the couple's vehicle can not go in reverse while they are in it. This would portend a marriage that is going backwards. Because of this a lot of planning goes into getting cars positioned correctly before the bride and groom get in, scoping out the route beforehand for any construction that may detour the entourage. Of course, some things you can't plan for. At the couple's new apartment building, their car was suppose to drive up to the front door to let them out. Unfortunately the driver waited just a moment to long to do the turn and wound up half in the driveway - half in the street, and the front passenger corner a few inches from having the paint ground off by the concrete planter box. Big dilemma, the car can't go backwards, and they aren't at the front door. I suggested that the guests lift the vehicle up and move it. After about 15-20 minutes of waiting and consulting the elders (those that actually knew and cared about the traditions) someone declared that the entrance to the apartment building was right where the car had stopped, so they got out and went up to their apartment.
In their apartment, more traditions ensued. The bride and groom entered their bedroom and invited everyone in. The groom then jumped on the bed in hopes of having a male child. One of the family members then fed a gelatinous rice ball (sort of like large tapioca) to the bride and groom and they then swapped the balls while kissing. Yes, it doesn't leave anything to the imagination if you know that the 3/4" ball from the bride's mouth ended up in the groom's mouth and vice versa. My friend who was very proper and demure was embarassed beyond belief. The bride then sat by the window and looked pretty while everyone else (including my wife and I) took pictures with her, touched her for good luck, and ate our rice ball soup.
At precisely 10:30 (probably another good luck omen), we left for the hotel to prepare for the reception. I put the finishing touches on my speech and then we went down to the bride's preparation room. She was getting her hair and make up finalized and chatting with friends. She had not eaten much all morning (except the aforementioned rice ball), so I convinced her maid of honor to feed her a large dumpling all at once, rather than cutting it up. She ate it in a very undignified manner, but her parents weren't there to scold her. My wife and I then headed down to the wedding/reception/extravaganza.
I have been to several weddings in my life. Some were small, family affairs. Some were larger. I have never been to one with a sit down catered meal before, although I have seen them portrayed on TV and in the movies. Let me just say that the size and scope of this wedding (for a couple who came from rather average backgrounds) far exceeded the extravagance depicted in something like "Father of the Bride." The ballroom was the size of three basketball courts and jam packed with tables. There were literally 500+ people in attendance. The grooms family and friends on one side and the bride's on the other. Outside there was the greeting tables for the bride and groom where you dropped off your red envelope of lucky money for the couple (we had previously given them their "American" dishes earlier since wrapped presents are usually not given. Looking at the stacks of envelopes on the tables, I estimated there was probably in the neighborhood of $20K to $30K American (about $600K to $900K Taiwan) in cash.
The ballroom was a cacophony of noise, we couldn't find our table and eventually located the bride's father and asked him where we were suppose to sit. He sat us at a table with some relatives including the bride's uncle who was from England. He told us not to get too comfortable because he had been moved three times already. Eventually the program started and the bride and groom entered with much fanfare. There were Chinese dancers, flashing lights, rock music. I am guessing that the fireworks didn't go off because the hotel probably didn't want the liability. Up on the stage the bride and groom went through a cake cutting ceremony (although, we never ate any cake), and then filled a champagne fountain, and then the speakers started. During the first one, I realized that of the 500 people in attendance, probably 4 were actually paying any attention to the speaker. I quickly made some adjustments to my speech in my head to shorten it down from 10 minutes with audience participation to about 3 minutes with no audience participation.
Eating is a very social event in Chinese culture. As such, they don't get hung up on talking with your mouthful, reaching across the table, etc like we do in America. Also, it meant that there was a constant hum of conversation going on such that you could not hear the whisper of the person next to you. We had a great time. The dishes came out were wonderful. Twelve dishes to be precise (my wife and I were stuffed after the first three, but the food kept coming). Lobster Salad, Shark Fin Soup, Fruit platters, pastries, rice, noodles, etc. I have never eaten for three hours before (even at Thanksgiving). There was eating for three hours.
After all of the speakers were done, one of the people sitting at our table went up to the stage to sing. She sang songs in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English (and maybe Taiwanese as well). Very talented. The bride changed gowns to get in her toasting gown. She and the groom then went to each table (50 of them) to toast all of the guests. 50 sips (no matter how small) will probably make you a little tipsy. Near the end, the waiters were packaging up all of the leftover food for take homes (did I mention that there was a LOT of food?). We just took some of the desserts that my wife liked since we were staying at the hotel and probably wouldn't have to eat for the rest of the week. I estimate that I probably consumed 4-5000 calories at that meal (this was after pigging out at breakfast as well).
The bride changed again into her going away gown to thank the guests as they left (yes she wore three dresses that day, which were all different from the dresses she wore for her pictures - including her wedding gown). My wife and I went upstairs to our room, changed into our Kalahsnikitty T-shirts and then took a cab down to the Dream Mall to relax for the afternoon.
The Dream Mall is about twice the size of the Mall of America (in retail floor space) and has about 5 times as many stores. There is an amusement park on top of the mall with the Hello Kitty Ferris Wheel. Our hotel window faced the mall so we were able to see it all lit up at night. The mall was very well laid out with a "theme" for each floor: kids, teens, housewares, food court, furniture, jewelry, etc. We spent a couple of hours there and bought a few things and then made our way back to the hotel.
In the meantime, the main elevator in the hotel had decided to die. So we were able to get up to the 39th floor, but not to the 59th floor where our room was. We waited outside the ballroom we had been at for the wedding which was being set up for another wedding that was about to happen. We joked that if we were hungry we could always try to crash this wedding. We could have climbed the stairs, but our legs were already tired from walking around the mall. Besides, how long can a 85 story building last without an elevator. After about an hour, we were able to go up a service elevator.
Later that evening, my friend, her husband, some of her friends from college and us went to a guitar bar. There was a "famous" musician playing (and taking requests) in English, Taiwanese, and Mandarin. A smorgasbord of food was ordered, which made me wonder how Chinese people could eat so much in such a short amount of time and still be skinny as a rail. (I probably weigh close to twice what my friend weighed and I am not exactly an obese guy - her husband barely weighed more than she did). My wife and I left at around 9pm to go back to the hotel since we had both been surviving on minimal sleep. Didn't get much more that night.

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